The Once and Future Lumumba

In a recent painting by a Congolese artist, the figures of Lumumba and his primary rival Kasavubu loom large
In a recent painting by a Congolese artist, the figures of Lumumba and his primary rival Kasavubu, in white, loom large

Following my last blog I have been reminded that there are people I respect and love who lived in Congo at the time of independence and hold a vastly different view of Patrice Lumumba.  When I read a former Congolese missionary’s recollection of Lumumba’s  “frantic and emotional ravings on the radio” I feel I owe him and you a direct response.

It would take a novel to reconstruct the atmosphere of fear and panic among nearly all whites in Congo in 1960 especially after Lumumba’s speech at the independence celebration on June 30.  That the Belgians present were so offended by the “truth telling” of Lumumba’s critique of Belgian colonialism indicates how unprepared the former rulers were for Congolese self rule.  The depth of Belgian loathing of Patrice Lumumba emerges clearly from the numbingly detailed and thorough account of The Assassination of Lumumba by Ludo De Witte.

Published in 2001, this book leaves no doubt that the Belgian government called for the elected Prime Minister’s torture and death at the hands of security officers and government officials of Belgium and the secessionist provinces of Katanga and South Kasai.  More telling though is the book’s evidence of the utter disdain and fear of the nationalist Lumumba among the Belgians.  Following his death, a leftist Belgian newspaper commented, “The press probably did not treat Hitler with as much rage and virulence as they did Patrice Lumumba”.

The De Witte book also notes the U.S.  backing, support and even plotting of the definitive elimination of the Congolese nationalist.

Head of the C.I.A. Allen Dulles wrote the Kinshasa station chief Devlin on August 26, 1960, “We concluded that his (Lumumba’s) removal must be an urgent and prime objective and that under existing conditions this should be a high priority of our covert action”. These efforts to remove Lumumba from power took place with the recognition that no other Congolese politician had a

Patrice Emery Lumumba July 2, 1925 - January 17, 1961
Patrice Emery Lumumba July 2, 1925 – January 17, 1961

comparable following or power to move the people. U.S. Ambassador Clare Timberlake in a 1960 memo to the State Department declared that Lumumba could enter a room of Congolese politicians as a waiter and emerge by the end of the meeting as the gathering’s elected leader. “Kasavubu will be a political zero as long as Lumumba is active” Timberlake wrote in another message.

This brings me to call attention to Lumumba’s naïve and touching trust of the U.S.  In the tape made by a reporter who visited him while in prison shortly before his death, he advanced the U.S. example as a template for the task his people faced:

“I remind you here of the Declaration of Independence adopted by the Congress of the United States in 1766 (sic), which proclaimed the overthrow of the colonial regime, the united colonies’ liberation from the British yoke, and thir transformation into a free and independent state.  The Congolese nationalists have thus merely followed in the footsteps of the French, Belgian, American, Russian and other nationalists. We have chosen only one weapon for our struggle: nonviolence.  The only weapon that would bring victory in dignity and honor.  Our watchword during the liberation campaign was always the immediate and total independence of the Congo.”

Those who would attribute the Congolese post- independence violence and mayhem to Lumumba’s words and not to the machinations of the West, must, in my view, account for the fifty plus years of war, dictatorial rule and increasing misery of the people of Congo after his death.  It is that deplorable record of Congolese rule in the context of neocolonial foreign control of the country’s resources that leads me to state that Congo has lost its way. The words of their first and only democratically elected leader have been suppressed and subsequent leaders have honored him without in any substantive way attempting to realize his vision.

Avenue Patrice Lumumba in Beira
“Avenue Patrice Lumumba in Beira” photo by South African artist in an exhibit documenting Lumumba hommages across Africa

Over the last 50 years, Lumumba’s stature as a spokesperson for the aspirations of oppressed peoples and as the prophet of the African liberation struggle in particular has grown.  As the African journalist Cameron Doudo wrote on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Lumumba’s death, “Patrice Lumumba is, next to Nelson Mandela, the iconic figure who most readily comes to mind when Africa is discussed in relation to its struggle against imperialism and racism”.

The major difference between Lumumba and Mandela’s political careers is that Mandela saw the strengthening of his African National Congress from inside the walls of his prison.   Despite Lumumba’s overwhelming grass roots support in 1960, his assassination cut woefully short his and his followers’ opportunity to organize for nation’s control of the country’s resources.  That is the great tragedy of Lumumba’s life and legacy.  In the midst of the multiple political parties organized on a tribal base of support, the creation of the MNC (National Congolese Movement) as a nation wide political party prior to the 1960 elections demonstrated that Lumumba’s powerful communication skills were matched by political organizing acumen.

Among the unrealized aspects of his legacy was Lumumba’s championing of the role of women in the new nation. In an early 1960 talk in Brussels he encouraged Belgian women in the audience to assist in the education of Congolese women for leadership.

“We want many Belgian girls to come to the Congo to teach and instruct our girls, and tomorrow the young ladies who are here will come to our country as welfare workers to educate our Congolese girls.  Our efforts tomorrow must  bring about a harmonious evolution of our peoples, and we want this evolution, the most fundamental one of all, especially that of our women, which has been somewhat neglected under the colonial regime – we want our women to have the same level of education that we men have, because when a man is educated, it is only the individual who is educated, but when a woman is educated, an entire family, an entire generation is educated.  We want many Congolese girls to come to Belgium tomorrow to get an education, and we want many Belgian girls to come to the Congo to teach and instruct our girls.  And it is so as to ensure equality between men and women that the Congolese movement demands the same political rights for women as for men.  We have proposed that both men and women eighteen or over be allowed to participate in the coming elections.  But certain reactionary circles, those that still insist on regarding women as servants are opposed to this plan and have a hand in the scheme to prevent this from happening.  I am certain that when I go back to the Congo, I shall conduct a noisy campaign on behalf of Congolese women.”

In concluding this overview of the Lumumba legacy, let’s consider what U.S. based Congolese political scientist Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja wrote on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the assassination,

“In Congo, Lumumba’s assassination is rightly viewed as the country’s original sin. Coming less than seven months after independence (on 30 June, 1960), it was a stumbling block to the ideals of national unity, economic independence and pan-African solidarity that Lumumba had championed, as well as a shattering blow to the hopes of millions of Congolese for freedom and material prosperity.”

One way to summarize the current state of the legacy would be that Lumumba’s ideal of national unity has been preserved at the cost of the nation’s economic independence and pan-African solidarity.

NOTE:  To read the entire Nzongola-Ntalaja article go to:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/global-development/poverty-matters/2011/jan/17/patrice-lumumba-50th-anniversary-assassination

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4 thoughts on “The Once and Future Lumumba

  1. Robert E. Smith

    Doug, I left this comment on Congo Connections last Jan. 22, 2011

    A propos of Wilmer’s and John’s reflections on the Lumumba anniversary, there are in addition to the two good books mentioned by Stockwell and Devlin:

    Patrice Lumumba. LE CONGO TERRE D’AVENIR EST-IL MÉNACE? Bruxelles: Office de Publicité, 1961.

    Thomas Turner. ETHNOGENÈSE ET NATIONALISM EN AFRICA CENTRALE: AUX RACINES DE PATRICE LUMUMBA. Paris: L”Harmattan, 2000.

    Two films: “Lumumba:La Mort du Prophète” and “Lumumba”

    Lumumba was no angel, but he wasn’t the devil the propaganda of the US, Belgium and political opponents made him out to be. Cold War fears influenced US attitudes, including most of us working in Congo at the time no doubt. The Belgian parliament has officially apologized. I’m waiting for the US to do the same. Although our CIA didn’t pull the trigger, US official pressures and money were involved in Lumumba’s assassination. And as followers of Jesus, I don’t think we should consider that the right solution.

    As for the Kwilu Rebellion, which many of you lived through, as did I, a book came out recently:

    B. Verhaegen. MULELE ET LA RÉVOLUTION POPULAIRE AU KWILU. Paris: L’Harmattan, 2006.

    Others on the topic are:

    Benoît Verhaegen. RÉBELLIONS AU CONGO. Tome I. Bruxelles: CRISP, 1966.

    Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch, Alain Forest, Herbert Weiss. RÉBELLIONS—RÉVOLUTION AU ZAÏRE 1963-1963. (2 tomes) Paris: L”Harmattan, 1987.

    Ludo Martens. PIERRE MULELE OU LA SECONDE VIE DE PATRICE LUMUMBA.
    Anvers: Editions EPO, 1985.

    Ludo Martens. ABO: UNE FEMME DU CONGO. Paris: L’Harmattan, 1995. (Mulele’s
    companion/wife?)

    V.Y. Mudimbe. BETWEEN TIDES. NY: Simon & Schuster, 1973. A novel about a priest who joined the Rebellion. In reality, Abbé Placide Tara did just that. He gets a chapter in the 2006 Verhaegen book.

    While we were horrified by the violence of the Kwilu Rebellion, we Americans tended to follow the Cold War line about the Communist monster, and not look at the corruption and greed of leaders who pushed our Kwilois to seek a “Second Independence.” And we again were perhaps too acquiescent to see US planes with exiled Cuban pilots bombing Congolese citizens. Again, is that the Jesus way?

    Like

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